The 80-acre homestead that we first lived on when we moved up here to Minnesota was a bit remote. There were two other families in the same area but the closest lived about a mile away via the gravel road.
We had ski trails all through our woods that we used a lot in the winter time. Our daughter got her first pair of cross country skis when she was about four so when she was nine years old, and the following incident occurred, she was already a pretty competent skier.
Along with our nearest neighbors who were good friends, we decided we should all work on making a trail through the woods from our house to theirs. Then we could ski back and forth in the winter without having to go along the gravel road. We cut trees and cleared brush for a couple weekends one fall and by winter time had a nice trail that connected our homesteads.
At the time they had two milk goats and we also had started our small herd. It was natural that we would do each others' milking and animal chores when one family needed to be gone for a time.
The other mom and I frequently went on ski outings during the day when the kids were in school and husbands off at their jobs. The rule was that we always left a note on the kitchen table saying what time we left the house, where we were going, and what time we expected to be home.
Okay, back to one winter day when we were in charge of doing the neighbors' evening chores. Roy had a meeting after school so our daughter took the school bus home and she and I were going to ski through the woods to the neighbors', do their chores, and be back home before dark.
I can't remember what I was involved in but I wasn't quite ready to leave as soon as Daughter got home, changed her clothes and was ready to go. At any rate, we left a smidge later than planned.
We skied through the woods, fed and milked their goats, fed their chickens, collected eggs, gave fresh water to everybody, and checked the house to make sure all was well. Not only had we gotten over there later than planned, but chores, for some reason, took longer than expected. Dusk was falling fast and I knew we weren't going to make it all the way home before dark.
I was not a well prepared woodswoman that day. I had neglected to bring any kind of a head lamp or flashlight along on the journey.
We no more than left their homestead and entered the woods than we lost all natural light. We could hardly see the ski tracks on the trail. But that wasn't the worst of it. From not too far off in the woods, we could hear the howling of wolves. There was a healthy population of timber wolves in the area that winter and it wasn't unusual to hear packs "talking" back and forth to each other.
I gave some thought to turning around, going all the way across our neighbors' land and out their long driveway through more woods to get to the road and walking or trying to ski home via the plowed gravel road. Daughter and I had a short conference. I explained to her that it would be almost twice as fast to ski home via the woods trail and that's what I thought we should do. We frequently saw wolf tracks on the road so that way didn't guarantee a wolf-free trip either. I wasn't feeling very big and brave at the time but tried to convince her all would be well. She hesitantly agreed to my suggestion of skiing through the woods.
We tied our hats on securely, put our ski pole straps around our wrists and got ready to push off. I asked her if she wanted to go first or follow behind me.
She replied, "I don't wanna go first!"
So I told her I was going to go as fast as I could but to just yell if I was getting too far ahead of her.
It was so dark I truly could not see the ski trail in front of me. The good thing was that we had used the trail a lot and had defined tracks that our skis could follow. The bad thing was that we had to go up and down a couple of fairly steep hills and navigate some tricky turns. And, oh yeah, there was the continual howling of the wolves that commanded much of our attention.
I know it was adrenaline that spurred my nine year old along that night but I don't think the front tips of her skis were more than 6" behind the back tips of mine the whole way. She was bookin' it!
We came to the top of the steepest hill before we crossed the frozen creek and came up into one of our fields. I stopped at the crest and told her we had to go down separately so we didn't crash into each other. (Secretly, I was hoping there wouldn't be a moose standing at the bottom that one of us would crash into.) I again asked if she wanted to go first but she said no. I told her to wait at the top and I would yell as soon as I got to the bottom and she could come on down then. I no more than came to a stop at the bottom and was turning to call to her when I saw her dark shape coming down in a beautiful tuck position like a bullet in a down jacket.
Once out in the open of the field we could see a little better plus our house in the distance was lit up like a Christmas tree. Roy had arrived home, found no note and couldn't figure out where we were. He knew we had planned on going to the neighbors' to do chores but didn't know why we weren't home yet when it was pitch dark out. He was just going to get back in his car and drive over there when we clomped up onto the back porch.
I know the wolves were most likely never anywhere close to us but when we were in the middle of those thick, dark woods, they sounded plenty close enough. Almost thirty years later, our daughter vividly remembers that ski home, and I still remember the speed record we both set getting there.
Just when it couldn't have been more surreal...
6 hours ago